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Interpretation is Imagination and Grammar

Michel Debost | October 2017

“Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”

– John Ruskin

    A place near Paris where tourists often flock is the Chateau de Versailles, an overdone tribute to King Louis XIV by himself. His vanity was substantial, and he enjoyed walking through the Galerie des Glaces (Gallery of Mirrors) because the walls reflected his image ad infinitum.
    Music is the mirror of the soul; our emotions are stirred by music. The more we dwell on our emotions, the closer we come to the unattainable goals of comprehending music and knowing ourselves.

    Music has many moods, including peaceful, violent, mystic, tormented, happy, sad, passionate, patient, mysterious, urgent, or inquisitive. At first we should ask what a passage means, whether it speaks of morning, night, fate, or hope; whether it smells of a spring rain or a subway or has the color of autumn or the grays of dusk. Whether he loves it or loathes it, a flutist should be able to communicate all emotions.
    I ask my students to perfect their skills through scales and exercises after thinking about the mechanics of playing the flute. This does not contradict imagination and emotion because there is music in the simplest of exercise patterns.
    The painter Henri Matisse said, “One must not make the hand pass into the spirit, but the spirit into the hand.” Practicing as an artist should be the constant. The conquest of good instrumental playing or the knowledge of certain interpretive ideas will not make an artist out of a tree stump, but certainly a lack of them will handicap the most gifted.
    When starting a new piece of music and trying to find ideas for your own interpretation, study the score, which is the piano part with the solo line for pieces and the complete orchestral score for excerpts. You will find your tempo of the piece from the speed you can play a difficult run with many notes, not from the tempo suggestion or opening measures.
    When the accompaniment has a long rest, the composer is giving you the opportunity to be free with the music. However, if the piece has a strict rhythmic pattern, it is better and safer to follow the beat. An excellent pianist might follow you, but an orchestra probably won’t.
    Music, as in life itself, develops from tension and release. Find places in music that have tension and allow time for it to build. After the release, which you should feel physically, don’t linger; the music keeps going and so should you. Some examples of tension and release in music are appoggiaturas and harmonic accents, such as a leading tone from a dominant seventh that resolves up to the tonic; wide intervals, especially if they are dissonant; increasing dynamics; and written accents such as sfz and sfp. A scale passage or an even pattern is usually free from tension. In all musical styles some passages are purely ornamental. Even in Mozart, virtuosity plays a major part in the music, and flutists should not make an emotional issue out of every note.
    In a two-note slur, the second note is a release from the first. This does not mean that the first note is louder than the second, but that the second one is softer than the first. Think of nuance; technically you can achieve this by not slapping the keys on the release. Similarly in a wide interval, play the first note with tension and consider the second the release.
    In Italian the suffix -ndo means “in the process of.” Therefore accelerando means slow in the process of speeding up; crescendo means soft in the process of getting louder; and diminuendo means loud in the process of getting softer. Play the dynamics according to the direction of the phrase without systematically diminishing long notes in a crescendo or starting too softly at the beginning of a decrescendo line. A change in dynamics or tempo is most effective when held back and then executed with conviction.
    Here is where your imagination and knowledge come together. Don’t always use the big tone. Feel and taste the difference between major and minor, between D# and Eb. Do not play a tempered scale, which means that all the half steps of the chromatic scale are equal and hence out of tune. Play the tonality, the key, the mode, the happy D major, the somber E minor, the tragic C minor, the triumphant C major, and the quizzical F minor. The scales and arpeggios will help you feel this. Give them the color you like and enjoy the variety. As we say in America, “Vive la difference!